How to Actually Niche Down

Productize for the right niche & customer

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A few years ago, I was busy leading product discovery for corporate innovation teams. When it came to helping companies prioritize and validate the right business opportunities to pursue, my little consulting practice had made a name for itself as being one of the go-to companies to work with.

As word spread, I secured notable contracts with teams at Google, Home Depot, Amazon, Ford, Coca-Cola, Mailchimp, and more. Aside from doing great work and winning big-name clients, what also helped was being dubbed an expert with certain, well-known discovery frameworks; e.g. Design Sprints and Problem Framing.

None of this is meant to gloat. It’s simply to paint a backdrop for a story I want to share with you today about niching down too soon, too fast.

See, I’m a self-taught marketer. In my 15 years of being a business owner, I’ve always looked to the pros to learn about positioning and persuading. The general advice is to niche down. To narrow in on your topic, the problems you solve, and then zoom way down to focus all of your content, messaging, and materials to a segment (niche) filled with customers looking for solutions.

Actually, I still think that’s solid advice. But for the untrained entrepreneur who’s moonlighting as their own marketer, I’ve always struggled to know if I’m niching down the right way.

As alluring as it is to hear that There’s riches in the niches, there’s very little information about how to niche down.

In today’s article, I’ll share the mistakes I made, lessons learned, and what I do differently these days.

To get started, let’s define some important terms.

Niches vs customers

I’ve been known to use the words “niche” and “customer” interchangeably. They’re related but not the same.

A niche is a group of customers with specific behaviors, needs, and preferences. The customer is the individual person or company that buys your product (or service) when it satisfies their needs.

Here’s an overview, with a simple example:

Now that that’s cleared up, let’s pick my story back up from the point where I began productizing the discovery services I mentioned at the start.

Productized toolkits

I’ve shared my story of productizing the discovery work I do for corporate teams. I packaged my knowledge and resources into digital products that I sold online.

These toolkits include training and templates. They’re self-serve in the sense that teams can buy them and then perform their own product discovery.

I created the toolkits to solve two business problems:

  1. Reduce or eliminate the need for me to deliver the work

  2. (drastically) Improve my sales cycles

Number one was important to me, the person. The guy selling and doing the work, while also running my company. After 10+ years, I was facing full-on burnout. I needed a break. I needed a way to earn income where I wasn’t trading all of my time for money.

Number two was important to me, the business owner. When I wasn’t fulfilling my services, I was consumed with constant marketing and selling. It was exhausting and, often, soul-crushing (lots of ‘nos’). More so, it was terribly inefficient.

My customer was a (very) busy executive. They managed business lines and teams of people within Fortune 500s. They’re part of a small, hard-to-access niche. They’re also bombarded by endless pitches. And once you do get a chance to win their business, they typically need C-suite sign-off on the budget.

If you want to win their attention and dollars (and you’re not IBM or McKinsey), the path to them is through their team. And so I’d spend months building trust with their Product Managers, Innovation Managers, and Designers — my influencers.

With consistent LinkedIn posts, blogs, webinars, and newsletters… eventually, my influencers would remember me at just the right time. An opportunity in their company would appear and they’d recommend me to their boss or boss’ boss. And sometimes, I’d win those opportunities by pitching and praying.

My hope with the toolkits was that my influencers would buy my toolkits, get some quick wins, and then recommend me to their execs for bigger / more complex projects. By empowering my influencers to deliver value for the company, once I was in front of their boss and my customer, my capabilities were already (partially) pre-sold.

When I launched the toolkits to my existing audience of influencers, sales came in, but not nearly at the levels I’d hoped. Weeks and months passed. Toolkit sales trickled in. It was deflating.

Data-driven customer research

One day, I was sharing my disappointment with a marketing friend. She asked if I could find out more about who was buying the toolkits.

With a bit of digging, I pulled the data. I was blown away. 90% of my toolkit customers were consultants. Versions of me who had been following my work. They hoped to build a business like mine. When I began selling my toolkits, they jumped at the chance to access my knowledge and materials.

It was a complete blindspot to me that my ideal customers were the people just a few steps earlier in their journey of doing the same consulting work I did.

Here I thought the perfect niche would be my influencer-customers, who’d use the toolkits for their company’s discovery needs. Instead, it was consultants using my toolkits to deepen their expertise, get in front of more customers, and grow revenue. In other words, their business problems were my business problems.

Do you see how both my niche and customer needed to pivot?

Pivoting my niche

I could have gotten defensive and shut down toolkit access to my “competitors.” Instead, I saw it as an opportunity.

  • I shifted my content to welcome in these fellow consultants

  • I ran webinars to teach them how to sell discovery to their customers

  • I created guides that answered questions raised during the webinars

  • I added consultant-specific FAQs to my sales pages

  • I set up affiliate deals with them

By pivoting, I not only increased my toolkit sales, but I also armed industry peers with my company’s branded materials. As they used my toolkits with their customers (also my customers), my brand and value was showcased. As a result, my influencers began purchasing my toolkits. And just as I’d hoped, a percentage converted into premium consulting customers.

$80,000 in toolkit sales drove $1M in premium consulting

I eventually achieved my business goals, only the starting point was different from my original plan. And it was all possible because I was willing to look at the data and flex my niche and customer.

But I also could have figured out my niche and customer a lot sooner with a bit more upfront… discovery. Yep… the thing I teach companies to do — discovery — I failed to do myself.

If I could do it over again…

These days, when I create new products, I don’t wait until after I’ve launched to look at the data, learn, and iterate.

  • I build prototypes to learn

  • I set up beta tests to learn

  • I post content snippets on social to learn

  • I announce waitlists to learn

  • I create landing pages to learn

By the time I get to building my actual product, I have a treasure trove of insights to help me solve the right problems with the right products.

I also have testimonials and case studies to use as social proof for my product launch.

But I don’t launch and move on. I use customer data to continue iterating and improving my product. Less pivoting and more refining.

The lesson in this for you

A lot of first-time entrepreneurs make the opposite mistake I made. They created products and services for everyone. But if you’re solving for everyone, you’re selling to no one.

You need to make some bets about who your target niche and customer will be. But like everything in business, you first need to treat it like an experiment.

  • Do your research

  • Find problems you’re curious to solve

  • Prioritize learning over knowing

  • Validate your assumptions with customer insights

  • Launch, listen, learn, and iterate

The most successful products are rarely our first ideas. Those are called guesses.

Products that win solve real problems for a niche and customer with specific, unmet needs. Your job is to uncover them and chase them until you hit pay dirt.

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